toronto first telephone book

A brief history of Toronto's first phone book

Toronto's humble (and now almost obsolete) telephone directory turned 134 years old this spring. The first ever book printed in Toronto to contain a list of people reachable by phone was printed on April 1 1879 on behalf of the Telephone Despatch Company Limited - the city's first phone company.

In the final years of the 1870s the telephone was in its infancy. The book, a small pamphlet really, was published before dialing, combined ear and mouth pieces, and the widespread adoption of residential phone lines. It even predates the ability to talk and listen at the same time. At just four pages long, the "list of subscribers" is really a list of early adopters of a radical new technology.

toronto first telephone book

The Telephone Despatch Company was founded in 1878 by two brothers, Dr. Abner Mulholland and Melvin M. Rosebrugh, Hugh Neilson, and Charles Potter, an optician who became the company president. Melvin Rosebrugh was listed as the first manager.

Abner Rosebrugh and Charles Potter had history. The pair developed a technique for photographing the fundus of the eye in 1864 and had the city's first private phone line between their homes.

The company headquarters and 24-hour exchange was located at 10 King Street East, a few buildings west of Potter's opticians. According to historian and newspaper editor John Ross Robertson, the building was previously home to Thomas Haworth and Co., a wholesale hardware merchants. The Toronto Telephone Despatch Co. took over the space Haworth died in 1878.

By April 1879 the company boasted 40 miles of wire and was offering handsets to "any part of the city or suburbs." Not bad when you consider Alexander Graham Bell's invention had only been patented three years earlier.

Bell also held the Canadian patent for the telephone, which he partially transferred to his father, Alexander Melville Bell. The senior Bell leased the patent with his business partner Thomas Henderson to companies like the Toronto Telephone Despatch Company and the District Telegraph Company in Hamilton.

toronto telephone company

Making a simple call outside the local party line was ludicrously complicated by today's standards. Since there was no direct dialing, users had to call the central office, tell the operator which person they wanted to reach, and wait for the wires to be connected.

At the other end, a bell on the phone would sound, indicating an incoming call. To answer, the user had to flip a switch as shown on a piece of card. The operator would say "all-right" when the conversation could begin.

A red light on the side of the device glowed when the shared line was already in use and presumably hinted at a good time to eavesdrop.

"Speak slowly and distinctly, with some force, but not in a high tone," the book instructs, illustrating the limitations of the technology and the general unfamiliarity with telephones. "Let the telephone rest against the lower lip. While listening press the telephone firmly against the ear."

"At all times give your hearers ample time to transfer the telephone to their ear before you speak, and be certain a sentence is finished before you reply." Calls were expected to be kept under three minutes as a courtesy to other users.

Making a connection within the same line was easier: callers had to simply lift the receiver and signal the person with which they wished to speak. "If the call is not answered after repeating it, conclude they are absent, and ring no more just then." (that part really is in bold.)

toronto telephone company

According to Toronto Sun historian Mike Filey, the first commercial enterprise to purchase a telephone hook-up was the Queen's Hotel on Front Street, a predecessor to the Royal York.

The company's first private line was installed at Oliver Mowat's office in the old parliament buildings on Front Street. Mowat was the 3rd Premier of Ontario and a father of confederation. He began his political career as a city alderman and was the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario when he died in 1903.

The 1879 directory lists 56 private residences and businesses that were available by phone, including the Eye and Ear Infirmary, the Empress Hotel, the Globe newspaper, Union Pacific railway, and the Toronto Evening Telegram.

toronto bell switchboard

Notable among the early adopters was John Ross Robertson, the newspaper editor, historian, and later MP mentioned earlier, who listed a connection at his Evening Telegram office at King and Bay streets and home at 72 Bay Street.

Ambrose Small, the theatre tycoon at the centre of Toronto's most sensational unsolved mystery, may also have been available by phone: the Grand Opera House he worked at as a boy ripping tickets and serving drinks is also listed as one of the available businesses in the 1879 directory.

As printers of the book, Bingham & Taylor, an outfit located on Leader Lane, seem to have been given free ad space. The top and bottom of all but one page carries their name and promotes samples, estimates, "unique and desirable" typefaces, and high quality of their work.

The Toronto Telephone Despatch Co. lasted only two years before it was bought out by the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, a precursor to today's Bell Canada. Mike Filey reports Hugh Neilson took over as manager at this point and Bell remained at 10 King East for a few years longer.

When this year's local Yellow Pages lands on your doorstep remember its lengthy pedigree before you put it in the junk drawer and forget about it.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Toronto Public Library, City of Toronto Archives, Chris Bateman/blogTO


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